Actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kelly Preston joined a smaller than expected crowd of Scientologists on Sunday to dedicate what the church calls its most important project ever, its massive Flag Building.
Church leader David Miscavige presided in a ceremony that lasted just eight minutes and was marked by a burst of confetti that rained down like golden tickets. His remarks couldn't be understood outside the church's perimeter.
Miscavige then led the first group through the front doors of the building, where Scientology's much-anticipated "Super Power" program will be presented for the first time. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard developed it in the 1970s, but the church did not unveil it until a proper venue could be built.
Hubbard said Super Power would allow Scientologists to develop special abilities and "create a new world."
The church had told city officials to expect a crowd of 10,000. Far fewer than that gathered, forming a horseshoe around the main entry. Clearwater police could provide no attendance estimate because the crowd was somewhat scattered. But the number may have been lower than the 6,000 who turned out for the Flag Building's groundbreaking in 1998.
Second-generation Scientologist Brad Kugler of Palm Harbor scaled a palm tree to get a better view of the ceremony. He said, "I've been watching this come out of the ground for the better part of 15 years. It's huge."
The outdoor ceremony clearly was for Scientologists only. The church erected 6-foot-tall privacy fences and placed potted trees around the event site. Streets and sidewalks also were closed. Anyone who attempted to get close was stopped by church security staffers.
A Tampa Bay Times reporter asked church spokesman Peter Mansell whether the Times could tour the building later in the afternoon to photograph its features for the public. "Not interested," he said tersely.
Church officials have not said whether the building will be open to the public at some point.
The church also has said little about what's inside. But building plans submitted to the city show a basement dining facility, offices, course rooms and hundreds of small rooms for Scientology's core counseling practice called "auditing."
The fifth floor is for the Super Power program, which uses several specially designed machines to sharpen what Hubbard called man's "perceptics." One is a gyroscope-like wheel and another is said to allow users to experience zero gravity.
The sixth floor contains a large circular track. Scientologists will run until they achieve what Hubbard called a "cognition," or moment of enlightenment.
Clearwater police reported no arrests and no incidents Sunday. Four people in Guy Fawkes masks were the only visible protesters.
Few members of the public tried to get a peek at the dedication. They had to stand at least a block from center stage and could see or hear little.
"They are not interested in letting the public know what's inside their building,'' said Sandra Devereux, 60, a Canadian who winters in Clearwater.
"That's why we all are behind this little white line,'' she said, pointing at a crosswalk.
Other walled-out onlookers also groused about the church.
"We're curious, we're interested,'' said Ned Czajkowski, 64, of Dunedin. He and Dennis Juno, 65, of Clearwater got no closer than the fence.
"It would be nice if it was more public,'' Czajkowski said. "It would be like going into a cathedral — right?''
Juno had another take. "It's a cult," he said, adding, "They just need better PR.''
Phil Marcellus, 63, of Belleair and Debbie Halvorsen, 62, of Largo biked up to the church's barriers after detouring off the nearby Pinellas Trail.
"I just can't believe how they can just completely take over,'' said Marcellus, referring to the church's many downtown holdings.
Said Halvorsen: "People don't want to come to downtown Clearwater because that's all you see — big groups (of Scientologists) walking everywhere. Downtown Clearwater could be a really interesting, vibrant place.''
Inside the fence line, groups of Scientologists formed for their long-awaited first look at the church's largest and priciest building ever.
It also has been a huge money-maker.
A team of church religious workers started an aggressive funding drive in the early 1990s. A Times analysis in 2011 determined the Super Power campaign had collected more than $145 million — far more than the $100 million price tag church officers repeatedly cited as the building's estimated cost.
Many Scientologists gave lustily to the Super Power campaign. Some donors contributed millions of dollars.
Rocio and Luis Garcia, of Irvine, Calif., gave more than $340,000 before leaving the church in 2011. They sued the church in Tampa federal court in January, alleging the church used the on-and-off construction "as a shill'' to continue raising money. The church called their fraud suit frivolous.
The church has not responded to Times questions about how much Scientologists will pay to take the Super Power program, nor how long the program takes to complete. Super Power combines drilling on machines and auditing. Auditing can cost up to $1,000 for a one-hour session.
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159.